SNP transport minister Jenny Gilruth's tone-deaf speech to Scottish Transport Awards left some seething – Alastair Dalton

There are few opportunities for transport ministers to address the great and the good from across the industry, so the Scottish Transport Awards dinner has become something of an annual shindig.

From Derek Mackay metaphorically tearing up his script and cracking jokes to Humza Yousaf voicing angst at being unable to eat because the event fell in June during Ramadan, guests at the event have come to expect something a little different from the political leader of their sector.

After being appointed as minister in January, Jenny Gilruth was immediately impressive for command of her brief, understanding what lay at the heart of key transport issues, and being adept at parrying attacks by opposition MSPs.

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It was therefore a surprise that her speech kicking off this year’s awards ceremony turned out to be such a disappointing missed opportunity.

Transport minister Jenny Gilruth addressing the Scottish Transport Awards in Glasgow last Thursday (Picture: Transport Times)
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What she said failed to take account of her audience and came across as tone deaf when Scotland’s transport is still facing post-Covid crises – even before the soaring cost of living added another.

I’m amazed how often I sit through transport conference speeches thinking what’s said must only be new to someone who’s arrived from another planet, and if I’ve heard it all before, so must everyone else in the room.

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But that must be doubly so when the audience includes some of the most senior and knowledgeable figures in Scottish transport.

Surely what you don’t do at such a gathering is simply repeat what your government has pledged to do, without any attempt to reflect the importance or scale of the challenge.

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The McGill's Buses team collecting their public transport operator of the year award with awards host Grant Stott, left. Picture: Transport Times
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Reading out a list of sums of money and dates, and making out everything is fine, simply won’t cut it.

Gilruth even had the temerity to gloss over one of the SNP’s most ambitious, and according to experts, least achievable targets, of scrapping the majority of diesel buses by next year, by rephrasing it as a “shift away from diesel buses by 2023”.

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One industry chief was seething at what they heard.

“Public transport is sick – the government wants us to run when we’re struggling to walk,” they told me. “We’re getting a little better but we’re not well enough to stop the treatment (extra support funding), but the government line seems to be it has cost us a lot and we’re stopping it now anyway.”

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I was a guest of First Bus at the dinner but did not discuss the speech with them, and that comment was from elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I found it ironic that while Gilruth is Scotland’s – most welcome – first female transport for two decades, the first awards for three years because of the pandemic brought into sharp focus the huge lack of diversity in the sector.

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The vast majority of those taking to the stage to collect prizes were older, white men.

They included 12 of the group of 13 people from McGill’s Buses who came up to receive the top award of public transport operator the year.

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Of course, there were no sexist jokes from awards host Grant Stott – vegetarians, I thought rather unfairly, were among the targets of his humour – but such a showcase event must do so much more to encourage female participation, in entering for awards, presenting them or as guests in the hall.

If Gilruth is still transport minister next year, I’d like to hear her deliver a very different speech to a much better gender mix.

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